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Breaking the chains of poverty

Mission makes a difference in Southeast Asia

by Cobbie and Dessa Palm | Mission Crossroads

The sound of Filipino schoolchildren’s voices breaks through the overwhelming feeling of despair. (Photo by Cobbie Palm)

Roland is now in high school and is among a group of student panelists presenting on the topic “Social Economic Reforms for Sustainability,” organized by the National Christian Youth Fellowship. The invitation to be a panelist is merited by outstanding academic achievement and each of the panelists performed exceptionally on this day.

But it was Roland who caught my attention. Roland passionately and sincerely spoke about rice and hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, Roland argued, “has been threatening and taking lives, but just as severe a threat and as violent a killer is the Rice Tariffication Law, which took effect March 5, 2019.” At that point, he went on to connect the dots. “Hunger in the Philippines today has reached an unprecedented high of 30.7% of all households in the country. The reason is not only the loss of employment caused by the pandemic, but also the high cost of rice. Farmers in the Philippines can no longer afford to compete with foreign rice imports.”

Roland powerfully concluded, “Then came the pandemic, and our main sources of rice — Thailand and Vietnam — suffered tighter supplies and less exports, and with less imports came higher prices. Our dependency led to increased poverty for everyone because our 10 pesos worth of rice is now costing 20 pesos at the present market price.”

After all the panelists had spoken, those in attendance and those of us tasked with responding were given access to send messages in the chat. I sent a generic congratulations to everyone. In a short while, to my wonder, I received a personal message from Roland saying, “Mr. Palm, you came to our school and taught us a song, thank you. I hope you remember me.” Shamefully, for the life of me I could not remember. I have visited so many schools, I had no idea when this was. I sent back a message, “I am sorry, you have grown up; I do not recognize you now.” He replied, “I was a tutor at the Sunbeam Day Care Center, where I once was a student.”

In spite of unrelenting poverty, children and youth in the Philippines find joy and hope. (Photo by Mienda Uriarte)

I began clicking through the files in my memory. The Sunbeam Day Care Center was a visit I made with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program during their orientation to the realities of the Philippines. It must have been at that time. I remember it was a difficult day for all of us. As we entered this district of Manila neighboring the port, observing this community through the windows of our vehicle, we were guided from the road, where we had parked our vehicle, into a narrow alley of abject poverty. The light of day grew into dark gloom as we walked single file over slabs of wood, elevating our steps from muddy wastewater below. To each side of us were walls of repurposed wood, then a doorway or a window that revealed a room to the left, then to the right. Each room was a whole home.

Soon there was the sound of children’s voices counting in unison. The narrow dark alleyway led us to a larger room that was set with children’s chairs and tables as a small mess hall. Voices were coming from another room. It was a classroom of children ages 5 to 8 — all learning together. This was the Sunbeam Day Care Center, a program of our PC(USA) mission partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, led by Tondo Evangelical Church. This congregation, believing that a mission endeavor can have significant impact, refused to lose hope.

Walking away from our short visit, I am ashamed to confess that the friends at the Tondo Evangelical Church had more hope and faith than I did. It was difficult for me to see a way out for children living amid overwhelming poverty, hunger and adverse conditions.

In unexpected times, God seems to be saying through these moments, “I am not done with you yet!” A personal message from Roland caught me by surprise. What I could not see then, God wanted me to see now. God connected the dots between a mission endeavor reaching into overwhelming poverty — nurturing a child with a new song — and witnessing that student using a well-deserved scholarship to access the tools to discern the structures in our society that perpetuate poverty.

Dessa and Cobbie Palm (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

God’s amazing work reminds me that mission works. Mission into poverty can lift hands, strengthen voices and warm bodies, reenergizing people who then can see clearly where policies and laws must be changed — Matthew 25 people willing to work together to make it happen.

Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm is a mission co-worker and director of spiritual formation at Silliman University Divinity School. Dessa Palm, YAV site coordinator in the Philippines, works as artistic director for Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts.

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